Border-Crossing Dialogues: Engaging Art Education Students in Cultural Research

Article excerpt

We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Eliot

Cultural understanding is essential to contemporary art education practice, however, there is much confusion about the various lenses through which we should consider the intersection between culture and education. Davenport (2000) distinguishes among four approaches to culture and education that include international-comparative, global, multicultural and community-based art education. My own experience, which includes crossing geographical and cultural borders from Brazil to attend graduate school and develop a professional career in the United States, is marked by these overlapping and encompassing orientations toward education and culture.

In the early 1990s, I landed in a professional field that was shaped by multicultural and global education concerns and interests. I was often puzzled by many requests to characterize my culture, artistic experiences, and traditions. As I struggled to understand the slice of United States culture experienced in the Midwest, I realized that requests to speak about Brazilian culture were in fact opportunities to reflect upon a heritage I largely took for granted. In the many conversations about being a Brazilian, vis-à-vis a United States citizen, I learned the potential of dialogue for cultural understanding. I experienced first hand the twofold process of (a) learning about others and, at the same time, (b) reflecting upon my own identity. I realized that cultural understanding involved and depended upon a personal dimension.

Stuhr (2003) makes a compelling case for connecting art education practice and students' lives. According to Stuhr, if oriented in this way, art education curricula and practices would "deal with the investigation of social and cultural issues from multiple personal, local, national, and global perspectives (p. 303). Because culture supplies the values, beliefs, and patterns that structure everyday life (Ballengee-Morris & Stuhr, 2001), it needs to be carefully examined.

I believe that teachers and students should learn to investigate their own cultural traditions, belief systems, and values as well as those of others as a requirement for critical participation in our constantly changing world. In my current work with graduate students in art education, I seek to create opportunities for cultural understating by encouraging students to engage in qualitative field research. My goal is to prepare art educators to learn how to inquire about art and culture and investigate the dialectics of local and global influences within a particular context. Such research can inform meaningful art education practices that while rooted in the different communities in which we participate, creates opportunities to recognize and transcend our familiar boundaries.

This article is a reflection about my attempt to incorporate these goals into the course "Art in a Global Society" during the spring quarter of 2001. This art education elective's main goal was to prepare educators to examine bordercrossing situations that facilitated contact with other cultures through art, education, or everyday experiences. As part of the course requirements, students designed and conducted an independent research project based on the premise that direct communication can advance cultural understanding. Students remarked that engaging in this type of research had more than educational significance because the skills they learned in the course transferred to real-life situations. I will illustrate these outcomes by presenting and discussing two students' projects.

In the first project, an art education student named Gabriele Ahowd examined meanings of preservation in different cultural contexts using the Internet to reconnect with former co-workers of a historical conservation project in Italy. …